Reflecting on Godzilla and the Bomb

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Seeing the US version as a kid I remember being pretty scared. The later films with Godzilla/Gojira fighting all kinds of other huge creatures really watered that down (ultimately leading to Gamera being “the friend of children everywhere”), but the original black and white film was nightmarish to my young eyes. I remember thinking “where would you hide? How would you outrun him?”


This month on TCM:|384918&name=Gojira-Godzilla-


Cut were scenes of Japanese social culture and politics, and the bulk of the anti-nuclear message, leaving a mostly solemn film that still works, albeit with more focus on the monster and less on the reason it exists and the country which it terrorizes.

I wonder if those scenes also included any recognition of the racism that helped propel the decision to drop the bombs on Japan. Surely the message wasn’t merely anti-nuclear.

North Korea is engaged in a mad race to build and launch nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Misses. It is likely the country could annihilate most of South Korea and Japan before other nuclear-ready countries could retaliate. And it only gets worse from there. World leaders don’t know how to cope with this. There is a sense of rational destabilization that makes Godzilla more timely than ever.

Um, that’s pretty one sided (“World leaders good, North Korea cray- cray!”). What could also cause that annihilation, and is actually more likely to do so than North Korean “madness,” is heavyhanded American efforts to topple yet another regime that refuses to conduct businees on the West’s own sef-serving terms. There’s more than a little truth to North Korean warnings about Western imperialism.


Probably not. If there’s one thing the Japanese are not, it’s at the forefront in combating racism.


Yeah, I suppose their own racism could make it harder to see the racism wielded against them. Unless they’re Japanese Americans?

As for whether it was a racist decision (not that I can tell whether you doubt that)…

By 1945, most Americans didn’t care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan’s war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” — “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted the Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America’s willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.”


Aside from the goofy eyes, Shin Godzilla was an interesting take on the theme. The creature pushing through the city along a waterway sure brought back memories of the tsunami and how it swept though communities.

The pacing was slow, but the boardroom scenes were effective in portraying old-school thinking as dangerous and ineffective.

Maybe the best visuals… the moments when the pure, aimless destruction was at hand, when Godzilla was letting loose with his mouth ray, bright as sunlight, cutting through everything it hit. Was like a long-lasting nuke flash. Effective & frightening scenes.

Because of licensing and other matters regarding studio rights and such, Shin Godzilla couldn’t be marketed in North America lest it step on the toes of other franchise efforts.

Shame, because Japanese takes on Godzilla is raw and personal vision of a people’s experience. The American versions are just monster destruction-porn on the same level as Transformers.



Some people find the eyes of second-stage Shin-Gojira goofy, but I had exactly the opposite reaction, finding them intensely disturbing in their vacant mindlessless. I love this flick unreservedly, but it’s so culturally specific that I always hesitate to recommend it.


The original is also heavily laced with reminders of war in the air-raid sirens, searchlights; the city on fire with buildings crumbling, etc. It was no mistake that Godzilla returns to Japan via Shimizu port, the home port of the Lucky Dragon.

I’m just finishing reading Jason Barr’s ‘The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters’. In it he notes that although the film foregrounds the bomb “much can be said about the brutality of war itself” (37).

The film–both intentionally and unintentionally–is an incredible focal and entry point into understanding Japan’s post-WWII struggles with identity.

Godzilla is a reckoning of all these struggles combined. The Godzilla franchise, in this way, is representative of each stage of Japan’s engagement and confrontation with this past (the thesis of Barr’s book, by the way).

Given that Japan still struggles with its own past rooted in WWII (think of the amount of apologies Japan has issues since WWII) it is no surprise that Godzilla and the expanded kaiju franchise/genre still resonate in Japan and throughout Asia (here I’m thinking of Korea’s Pulgasari, however problematic). Take, for example, the place Kiryu holds in Tokyo S. O. S.: the anti-kaiju device built from the bones of the original Godzilla (it is interesting that we’re introduced to Yoshito as he is building a model of Japan’s first fighter plane since WWII).

In some ways Godzilla is the ‘beast’ to face in the fall of an empire much as, perhaps, Gorgo is for the British as far as kaiju reflect this (one poster noted The Day After as another example of reckoning which reminded me of BBC’s long shelved ‘The War Game’).

In this sense, the Japanese, with Godzilla and so many other kaiju, seem more ready to face their past than other empires…


Thanks, good to hear that someone thinks Truman gave the matter a lot of thought. Less thought, presumably, than he would have had the question been whether to nuke a couple of German cities.

What do you distill from those two pages?


Fire bombing preceding the nuclear strikes may have influenced the creation of Gojira as a fire spitting monster. Tokyo was napalmed with cluster bombs which leveled a fifth of the city into a charred wasteland and left over 100,000 charred bodies of her citizens.

Bombing in Nagoya initially targeted factories and the treasured ancient castle (because it was a military HQ at the time). The castle could be seen burning for miles. (Really worth a visit! The defensive architecture still makes ground attacks virtually impossible, and a ruler and trusted inner circle could quickly fortify themselves against an uprising inside.) Later bombings targeted the general population and left half a million homeless in Nagoya.

Firestorms from bombings also destroyed half of Kobe and 8 square miles of Osaka.

Color map of three different urban areas. The urban areas are marked in grey, with red areas being super-imposed over this to show the portion of the city destroyed by bombing.
(United States Military Academy History Department - Public Domain)

Another inspiration is said to be the incident in early 1954 in which a fishing crew was exposed to fallout from a US nuclear test.


I agree totally. It is interesting to compare Edwards Godzilla to Toho’s for just these reasons. The scenes surrounding the Japanese government in and out of meetings and in dealing with the US (especially with a Japanese-American representative) are deeply sardonic!


It’s been a while since I saw the original uncut Gojira, but I don’t think racism is addressed. As I recall, any blame that falls on humans is kept very unfocused, “war” and (potentially) “science” may be the enemies, but the filmmakers avoided pointing any fingers directly.


Um, I got that he did give he matter a lot of thought. The book, “Plain Speaking” is an oral biography of Truman. He was a very thoughtful man. Also remember that he’d basically just gotten into office, and NO ONE, including FDR (not surprised!), clued him in as to the Manhattan Project. When he ran the Truman Committee as a Senator, looking into the miltary’s waste of manpower and supplies, he got close…but was warned to back off, which he did. But after that, nothing. The war in Europe was close to being over when FDR died, so I don’t see Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Germany; it wasn’t even ready by that time.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like, thrust into such a position of power and not being let in on what was going on by your superior? Especially during that time in the world’s history? It’s a good thing he was as stable as he was.


I suppose, but it’s also a bummer that he was also, like other white Americans, as racist as he was.

At the center of the fateful decision was Truman. Like many Americans, he found himself swept into the wartime maelstrom of anti-Japanese rage, driven by a fierce memory of Pearl Harbor and images of the Japanese as demons, savages, and beasts. But the hostility against the Japanese was pervasive in American culture long before December 7, 1941, and Truman was part of this culture. As a young man, Harry Truman had harbored prejudices. In a letter to his future wife, Bess, he wrote on June 22, 1911: “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or Chinaman. Uncle Will [Young, a confederate veteran] says that the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”

Truman had little in his social and intellectual experiences to challenge his stereotypes and prejudices. After the bombing of Hiroshima, Truman justified the devastation: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”


So, this article presumes that he didn’t grow out of those prejudices? Sounds revisionist to me. Get a copy of “Truman” by David McCullough. Truman started the desegregation of the U.S. Military; he was sickened by reports that black soldiers were coming back home from war in the South and being beaten. It’s true that he didn’t believe in social equality, but he did firmly believe in equality under the law.

Oh, so the Japanese using live POWs as bayonet-practice dummies isn’t beastly?

BTW, are you and I straying off-topic?


Because of licensing and other matters regarding studio rights and such, Shin Godzilla couldn’t be marketed in North America lest it step on the toes of other franchise efforts.

I watched it on a Hawaiian flight between SEA and OGG, so it’s got some distribution.

As for the boardroom scenes, they were effective, but heavy handed. SO MANY BOARDROOMS…


I think we are, cheers. (You might look into takaki’s work on the matter, including an entire book. He too thought a lot about it.)


The original Gojira was given Criterion treatment a while ago and is widely available here.

There is no such scene, I would dispute racism was as much at play there as the expected horrific losses of life from both sides had we invaded Japan instead.

My in-laws would not have made it through adolescence in Western Japan had the war not ended by August 1945. Famine was a very real danger by then. Lets just say that “Grave of the Fireflies” is far less of a fictional exaggeration than people would be comfortable learning about.

But there are two what always get noticed by American viewers.

One is a doctor waving a geiger counter over a child and shaking his head. Implying the child will soon die of radiation poisoning.

The other is of a mother and two small children huddling while the building around them collapses and eventually crushes them. The mother says something to the effect of “we will all be joining father soon”. (Implying the father/husband died in the war).

There is also an entire subplot which is very “Japanese” in tone that was dropped in the Americanized version. Concerning a woman’s choice of the man she loves or the scientist whom she was in an arranged engagement with.